In the last few weeks, I have received requests by various people who are interested in teaching English overseas. I will speak more specifically about teaching English in 中国China, as I can’t speak to 东南亚 Southeast Asia, 韩国 Korea, or 日本 Japan (especially because the culture of education and culture in general are varied).
First, let’s talk about certification. Many universities in China only require a Bachelor’s degree, but frankly speaking this is changing. More and more universities look for TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), CELTA/DELTA (the British ESOL equivalent of TEFL) or a Master’s degree. I know of at least one teacher who was required to get his TEFL course before being hired; his field was engineering and the university was concerned that it is a course of study that is far removed from language teaching. Of course, there are still places that will accept just a Bachelor’s degree, but expect to be paid less.
You can go the route of teaching in private language schools and there are plenty of private language schools in every city throughout China, but many are notorious for hiring foreigners who have nothing more than a high school diploma. What’s my take on certification? I think it’s essential to get TEFL or CELTA/DELTA certification (yes, Americans can get British certification). Your pay may be higher, and it will open the floodgate of available side-jobs. For example, if you have TEFL or CELTA/DELTA, after one year of teaching experience, you can apply to be an IELTS examiner (IELTS is the exam that non-native speakers take to go abroad…mostly to the UK,Australia, New Zealand, but more American universities will accept IELTS scores). IELTS examiners can easily make a couple of thousand RMB in one weekend.
Second, let’s talk about 关系 guanxi. 关系 Guanxi literally means relationships, but Chinese mean it in the same sense that we mean networks. Who you know is essential in China. It can help you land a job, retain a job, or seek other means of employment. In my case, my 姐姐, Hui li, is the reason why I have had numerous tutoring jobs and why I had the chance to edit a manuscript. In other cases, your university may provide side-jobs, even though technically speaking, you are only supposed to be employed by your work unit. There are some rules that must be strictly adhered to, but the rule of thumb here is that side-jobs are AOK as long as you don’t inform your work unit (duh!) or if your work unit provides this work for you. In my case, I am currently a lecturer at FMMU, the Fourth Medical & Military University. Each week, I present a lecture about various topics and then the students, mostly post-grads, ask me some related questions. So far I’ve lectured about Film, American Healthcare, American Sports, American Food Culture, American College Life, the History of Israel, & Jewish Culture.
Third, what are the characteristics that a future teacher should have? Well, they are oddly similar to if you teach in the US, but you should be prepared to run into different obstacles. I will discuss four attributes that I think are crucial for the most successful experience: patience, open-mindedness, willingness, and consideration.
First, patience. This probably could go without saying, but it’s essential. Your students will be very shy, and it will be very hard for them to communicate at first. You must exert as much patience as possible, because if they have any indication of anger, frustration, or annoyance from you, they will essentially shut down on you; this makes the situation go from bad to worse.
Second, open-mindedness. Again, another attribute that could go without saying. When I mean open-mindedness, try to leave your prejudices or stereotypes of Chinese students behind. Yes, many Chinese students are shy, but if you are open, easygoing, and thoughtful about what you choose to say and what remains unspoken, you will find them to return the favor. I also use open-mindedness in the sense that sometimes, you will hear very inaccurate or stereotypical ideas used to describe foreigners and Western culture. You should try your best to be open-minded about the fact that China hasn’t been open for a very long time, and there is still intense xenophobia (although, many people would argue America is not much different). Also, people are not as readily eager to express their ideas, especially on topics that are still taboo: sex, religion, human rights & politics. You will find plenty of Chinese who wish to discuss these topics with you, but it’s best if you let them begin the conversation. Side note: If you plan to come and do have certain religious preferences, I advise that you do not attempt to proselytize. Not only does it jeopardize the expatriate community, it stigmatizes our community. I have heard numerous stories of American religious college students who have made Chinese students particularly uncomfortable by talking, persuading, or even worse, handing out pamphlets to convince them to find God, and in particular to believe in Jesus. My first year I had a student who emailed me about the latter concern. On a similar side note, if you come here as a crusader, you will sadly, be disappointed. The Chinese, particularly the youth, are well aware of the pitfalls of China’s human rights and other issues; they just aren’t as inclined to talk about them nor do they have the same rights to stand up for what they believe in.
Third, willingness. You must be willing to do classroom activities that may seem childish and far below university level. These are not American college students. Chinese college students have low maturity levels and as such games and activities are encouraged by the students. Your willingness to plan, instruct, and participate in these activities is crucial to students’ success. You should also be willing to strive to be more than a mediocre teacher. The foreign teacher’s class is often seen as a free pass (and it’s easy to become apathetic), but there are many students that take it seriously, As such, you should too. It will be a mutually rewarding experience.
Finally, consideration. Consider that many of the students may have not even seen nor conversed with a foreigner before. Therefore, you should decrease your speech pattern, enunciate every word, and elicit how to respond to questions (as a class). Also consider that students are never asked for their opinion in class, or they haven’t had a chance to practice spoken English in a classroom setting. The studying for the 高考 gaokao, or college entrance exam, is so intensive that there is little time for an Oral English class. Furthermore, consider that they are certainly not mutes, but in fact, they know many words, and do not yet know how to utilize them all properly. So, it’s important to be considerate of their educational background. Start slow, and once they understand your somewhat erratic (to them) teaching methods, speed up the pace and increase the discussion, games, or activities’ difficulty.
Next, what can you expect? First, your salary will range somewhere between $450-600 a month, if you teach at the university level. This will also depend on your city, so I am speaking solely about Xi’an. What benefits can you hope to receive? At XISU, we receive a furnished apartment complete with a kitchen, bedroom, living room, and bathroom. You will also have utilities and Internet (forewarning: what passes for Internet here is sad) paid for by the university. Our FAO, Foreign Affairs Office, offers, usually free, a day trip once a month. On extended holidays (such as long weekends), they may also offer three to four day trips, but we usually have to pay. Some other benefits include airport pickup/drop-off, paid winter holiday, business cards and free access to the university’s health clinic.
As far as teaching goes, the maximum amount of hours is 16 hours; that equates to 8 classes. Each class is 100 minutes long; 50 minutes followed by a 10 minute break, and then another 50 minutes. There always seems to be overtime available as the university always has a shortage of foreign teachers. Teaching requires you to travel to the new campus; this is about 30-40 minutes, depending on the traffic and whether the bus driver is in a pleasant mood. Transportation is provided for us; it leaves the old campus three times a day and two times from the new campus. Additionally, there is always public transportation available. Generally speaking, the foreign teachers teach 4-6 hours a day, with most teachers getting at least one day off a week. Teaching styles and methods differ, but our goal is ultimately to get students to speak. Scouring ESL websites will give you a good idea of topics, activities, and games that can be utilized in the classroom.
It goes without saying, you will have a lot of free time on your hands. This is when you can take up learning Chinese, find a hobby or continue an existing one or explore the city. I joined a gym to help pass some of my free time and still two years later, I exercise regularly. I also study Chinese with a private teacher in addition to self-study. You can always take classes in Chinese language, history, or culture at one of the numerous private language schools. I can name at least half a dozen located just outside of the old campus’s main gate. Additionally, the expat community is close-knit, and many teachers, including myself, will host a party or organize an outing, usually grabbing dinner. Furthermore, your students will invite you to partake in outings, parties, or grab lunch. If you make Chinese friends, the latter will also occur. If you have a particular affinity for nightlife, the campus is only fifteen minutes from downtown, where there are a myriad of bars and nightclubs for your entertainment. What else? There are tons and tons of cafes and restaurants to explore. If you are “Chinese” size, then shopping,much like my students, can be your primary form of entertainment. DVDs, CDs, Video games(consoles are another story…at least if you want a legit Wii or Xbox) are especially cheap and abundant. Lastly, Xi’an is a historical city with plenty of temples, museums, parks, and other places of interest. Some are infested with tourists while others, such as the Qinling Mountains are more quaint.
Okay, I am going to get a little negative now, but there are some downsides to moving to the other side of the world. The first problem I must note is bureaucracy. Yes, I’m well aware this exists in the states, but not in the same capacity as it does here. There will be some red tape in order for you to be rightly employed. These days, the Chinese government is cracking down on illegal foreigners. It seems that they are under the impression that foreigners are running rampant without proper documentation. As far as XISU goes, you must send a CV, resume, a copy of your college diploma, and any other documentation the Foreign Teacher’s Coordinator deems necessary. I do not know what is needed if you decide to seek employment elsewhere. Other bureaucracy I should note, is that in a city like Xi’an, you will sometimes face challenges (bureaucratic challenges) in your daily tasks. Situations that readily come to mind are banking, transferring money, finding lost packages…this is where having helpful Chinese friends or consulting your students for help will be of the utmost importance.
Second, China, more so than the US, is a ProcrastiNATION. Really, I have always considered myself to be an Olympian procrastinator. I don’t even place! You will be phoned at the last minute by your department to be informed of your class schedule or any changes to the said schedule. Additionally, the university gives us a calendar at the beginning of the year, but sometimes dates change and sometimes, due to holidays, you will work on the weekends (and yes, you will often receive an email a few days before said schedule changes). You can also expect to be notified at the last minute about exams and grading. If you pick up any tutoring jobs, this will also lend itself to being notified of cancellations or changes at the last possible second. Even amongst friends, it is acceptable to cancel or alter plans with very little notification. It’s not considered erratic or strange behavior for someone to cancel or feign illness if they receive a better invitation. Furthermore, if you ask a friend for a favor, for the most part, it will be done, but it may take some time. So as I stated earlier, patience is of the utmost importance in and outside the classroom.
I have constantly told friends, family, and acquaintances that although life in China is slow-paced, it is by no means easier. Even a trip to the supermarket exerts a whole different set of energy. Be prepared to be a roller-coaster of emotions. I find myself more tired, more willing to stay at home; snuggle up with a good book, or watch a pirated film (I didn’t say that…). It could just be that I have experienced the honeymoon period and now I have “settled in.” Basically, what you need to be prepared for is a myriad of intercultural communication problems in addition to not always being able to achieve all of life’s little tasks. Don’t be surprised if it takes several tries in order to accomplish something we don’t consider arduous. Additionally, you need to be realistic about language study. Chinese is not a language you get any marginal amount of fluency in one year.
How can you best prepare for your China experience? First, I recommend reading as much authentic material regarding China as possible. Peter Hessler, the foremost contemporary authority on China and a quasi-journalist (he never really considers himself one), lived in China for over a decade. He is one of the most, I feel, balanced writers in regards to China. It probably helps that he is essentially fluent in Chinese, but he presents his experiences through two distinct novels (their genre really spans two disciplines: travel writing and current affairs): River Town & Oracle Bones. I recommend getting your hands on both; you will not be sorely disappointed. The latter covers his teaching experiences in Fulin, a small Sichuan river town. The former spans multiple narratives; he weaves between Xia, Shang, & Zhou oracle bone history, contemporary China, and contemporary narratives of his friends, acquaintances, and US-Sino relations. It’s an eye-opening read.
Secondly, you should do your best to familiarize yourself with Chinese. I would recommend Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, or Chinesepod.com. Start to get familiar with the pinyin system, basic vocabulary, phrases, and dialogues. Survival Chinese is best; don’t go beyond this as you need to begin studying characters as early as possible or else it’s difficult to connect Chinese sounds with their corresponding characters.
I hope I have covered as many angles of living and working in China, but for those of you who were interested in finding out more, and you have further questions or concerns, send me an email. As always, I’ve done my best to summarize an experience that is not always so clear-cut.